On the Issues: Virtue and Vice

By definition, an issue is something that people legitimately disagree about. A broken-down car or a cancer diagnosis are not issues; they are problems in need of solutions. Politics is the fine art of solving problems, many resulting from issues. Issues frequently arise because of differences in political, social, or moral values – something beyond the ability of politicians to resolve. Still, there is a two-thousand-year-old bit of advice that can help solve today’s nearly irreconcilable problems associated with issues of a political nature. (Click on the title to continue reading if necessary.)

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, writing in “Nichomachean Ethics,” was perhaps the first to mention the idea that “virtus in media via” (virtue lay in the middle way). As an example of virtue, Aristotle spoke of generosity as the midpoint between two extremes – avarice and spend-thriftiness. Both avarice and spend-thriftiness are extremes. Avarice is extreme greed for money, as opposed to spend-thriftiness. Spend-thriftiness is improvidence and wastefulness, a callous disregard for the value of money. Generosity is a virtuous midpoint – a kind and prudential form of giving.

From a political perspective, virtue rarely exists in extreme positions. Excesses of any virtue – either in its deficit or excess – are vices. Political leaders in a representative democracy – a republic such as the United States – would be wise to shy away from any vice in relation to political problems and aim for a virtuous middle position. Still, reaching a compromise position – where no one is entirely pleased or displeased with the outcome —is the most “virtuous” thing to do from a political perspective. Consider, for instance, the issue of abortion, which is undoubtedly one of the most contentious and polarizing issues today.

What are the extremes of this issue, and what is the compromise position? The extremes would be, on the one hand, no abortion, regardless of rape, incest, or the mother’s health. The other extreme would be unfettered abortion up to and including partial-birth abortion. According to a May 2023 Gallop poll question asking, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” 34% said abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 51% said abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances, and 13% said abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. That said, 64% of Americans feel there should be some abortion limits.

Abortion is highly polarizing because of its perception as either the murder of a living human being or an innocuous disposal of an unwanted mass of cells. Some states have outlawed all abortions from the point of conception. Other states, like Illinois, have made themselves abortion destinations, even allowing public tax dollars to provide for abortions. The opposing camps will never agree with one another about the morality of abortion; however, might we reach a compromise position that we can at least tolerate and that will provide some benefits?

Growing increasingly popular today is the idea of a 12-week ban on abortion. It has been proposed as a compromise position limiting abortions but not entirely outlawing them. While this limitation is problematic for some, it certainly provides some benefit, and some benefit is better than none.  

The 12-week ban, most would argue, is a point in time before a fetus is pain-capable and an essential consideration because abortions often chemically burn or dismember a growing baby in the womb. It also frequently, but not always, provides time to ascertain the questions of rape, incest, and sometimes the mother’s health. Is 12 weeks ideal? No, it’s a compromise position. It won’t limit all abortions but would reduce the number while protecting the “right” to abortion.

If we are to reach a nuanced compromise position to achieve at least some good, we must avoid the all-or-none mentality - at least for the time being. While the staunch pro-life position holds that moderation in protecting innocent human life is no virtue, accepting a partial ban on abortion is better than none. Compromise will not satisfy strident pro-life supporters, nor should it. Still, it's licit to move toward a compromise position until a more robust set of laws can be put in place to reduce further or altogether eliminate this horrific act. 

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